Matchbox Twenty Frontman Rob Thomas Ponders Success

By Kirk Baird

It's not to say that Rob Thomas is religious, but the lead singer and songwriter of matchbox twenty does point to a higher power when he talks about his band's success.

"We have lucky angels flying over our heads a lot of the time," Thomas said in a recent phone interview from Omaha, Nebraska (matchbox twenty performs Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center).

Whether Thomas was kidding is debatable, but there's no arguing something is going on.

After all, how many groups' debut album sells 12 million copies and produces three Top-10 singles?

But that's just what the band formerly known as Matchbox 20 did. The lowercase matchbox and spelling of twenty was to reflect the band members' maturity since its first release, "Yourself or Someone Like You," which produced the hits "3am," "Real World" and the misunderstood "Push." (Despite its title and dark subject matter about a relationship on the rocks, "It's not about physical violence," Thomas has repeatedly said about the song. "It's all emotional.")

Then there's the successful follow-up album, the double platinum-selling "mad season by matchbox twenty" (the lowercase title ties in with the band's new spelling), which produced the No. 1 "Bent."

And there are other radio-friendly songs, such as "Bed of Lies," "The Burn" and "Crutch," a sequel of sorts to "Push," waiting in the wings.

It would also seem matchbox twenty is a hit machine. But to say that "mad season" is simply a record of ready-made singles is not entirely fair to the band.

One listen to the album's closing number, the haunting "You Won't Be Mine," and there's no denying the record is not only more mature than its predecessor, but shows a band more comfortable with itself and, consequently, willing to take chances.

"Hopefully we are better," Thomas said. "All of our time just playing every night - if we didn't get better we should probably quit."

Still, at a time when angst-driven rock bands such as Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit also are vying for chart supremacy, it's easy to dismiss matchbox twenty as just a fluff band; a rock/pop hybrid of songs with lyrics usually concerned with doomed relationships.

And perhaps there's a modicum of truth to that.

But bands such as matchbox twenty have their place, too. And Thomas clearly knows where that is.

"When I grew up listening to the radio, the radio was Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Billy Joel and Elvis Costello," Thomas said. "That's what I thought radio was, so that's what we try to represent - that part of radio.

"We're just here for good songs."

Sound like a simple formula for success?

Consider Hootie and the Blowfish, a light-rock/pop band that had phenomenal success in the mid-'90s with its first album, only to drop off the radio radar with its sophomore effort.

So what is that matchbox twenty is doing differently? Even Thomas isn't sure.

"We didn't sell 12 million records because we're God's gift to music. Having a good record is a watermark and you do it because all the links in your chain are working right," he said. "We have a really good group of people, from the band to everyone we work with. We have a good relationship with the radio people and we play our ass off every night.

"The only other factor is luck. You can't place a reason to it: 'We did this because ...' We're really fortunate, you know?"

But fortune can only go so far, and it's clear matchbox twenty knew how to extend its luck further.

This began with a work ethic that would make the now-vacationing Phish take notice.

During its support of "Yourself," matchbox twenty hit the road and didn't let up for the more than 600 shows, or roughly 3 1/2 years. The constant touring, plus a healthy dose of heavy MTV and VH1 exposure, paid off as it gave the band continued exposure.

In between, the group - which also consists of Kyle Cook on lead guitar, Adam Gaynor on rhythm guitar, Brian Yale on bass and Paul Doucette on drums - won a Rolling Stone Readers' Poll survey as 1997's Best New Band.

Even as the band took a much-needed hiatus, Thomas continued to get exposure, this time for "Smooth," a song he co-wrote and sung for Santana, which dominated the singles chart and was the fuel driving Santana's mammoth comeback. It also won Thomas three Grammys in the process.

This happened even as the band was recording "mad season."

"It was a huge thing. Nobody could have planned it," Thomas said of the "Smooth" success. "It was just something I wanted to do because I was a big Santana fan, and for it to be what it was, I'm really grateful to Carlos for letting me be a part of that."

Some of that thanks should also go to Thomas's new wife, model Marisol Maldonado, who not only appeared in the "Smooth" video but served as the song's inspiration.

As it turns out, Maldonado features prominently in the themes of many of Thomas' songs, such as "If You're Gone," the album's second single, which details the first argument he and his then-girlfriend had and the chance the relationship had to come to an end.

Having one's personal life put on a record for public consumption and dissection might seem aggravating to Maldonado, but Thomas said it just goes with the territory of being with a musician.

"I am a songwriter. You can't ever limit something like that - your true source of inspiration," he said. "She has become the center of my life and so there's going to be a lot of stuff that comes from little moments of our life.

"In a way it's like our own little timeline. You can look back at this record and say, 'Oh, I remember that night, I remember that moment.' It's kind of nice."

As for the band's future, there's one more U.S. show after Las Vegas, then it's off to Australia, Japan and Europe.

At some point the band will take a two-month break followed by a return to the studio to work on its third album.

It's certainly not a glamorous life, Thomas said, as far as the fantasies of teenagers go, but he is enjoying it. And he's determined not to let it change him in the process - at least in a bad way.

"Hopefully there's an evolution that's gone on," Thomas said. "These are things that have to do with how you relate with others. I'm becoming more aware and how to handle yourself all these things are just character builders."

At this point in the interview, he brought up the book "Tao of Pooh," which "explains Taoist principles through Winnie the Pooh."

Is Taoism something Thomas subscribes to?

"I can't say fully, but I really think that some of the philosophies of it are simple maybe I'm just lazy," he said. "It seems with Taoists it's good to be lazy and to leave it up to fate."

Or some lucky angels.